May 17, 2010

Ajami, better than the critique, worse than the praise

I finally got to see Ajami. It is a harsh and depressing film, a joint work of a Palestinian and Israeli directors Scandar Cobti and Yaron Shani, made with more than a nod to Italian neo-realism, up to the use of non-professional actors, which works very well. The story-telling is superb. The acting is minimalistic, and the low social drama, the stories of drug dealers, clandestine workers, restaurant owners and cops, never becomes melodramatic. The film depicts a claustrophobic, violent demi-monde of Palestinians living on the margins of Israeli society, a racialized criminal underworld that rings familiar in its cinematic codes replicated from a visual history that stretches from Los Olvidados to City of God

As an aside, all the interviews I read is with Copti, and the film is about Copti's neighborhood. I'm not saying that Shani's contribution is unimportant, but I'm also not clear about what it is. It seems to me therefore fair to speak about Ajami as a Palestinian film done with Israeli Jewish help. The most interesting aspect of the film is a gap between the director's expressed intention, to address and call attention to the discrimination and abuse that Palestinians suffer in Israel, and the film's almost apolitical tone, in which the facts of discrimination are noticed by tiny gestures that an international audience is likely to miss, such as Binji passing a police checkpoint by pretending to be a Jew from Bat-Yam, resulting in the feeling that one deals mostly with racialized stereotypes. On its face, Ajami is not a nationalist film. It casts no blame, and depicts all characters, Jews and non-Jews, with the same empathy to their pain and hopelessness. But the film also depicts what the ultimate victory of Zionism is, the remainder of Jaffa's Palestinians, fighting, not for rights, not for their culture or history or land, but for the survival of the fittest. Ajami is a Palestinian neighborhood the way Israel wanted a Palestinian neighborhood to be, if it had to be at all.

To understand the film's paradox, we need to ask from where does the director speak. The best clue is in the film. Copti casted himself in the role of Binji. Binji is a Palestinian who passes. He speaks Hebrew without an Arab accent and clubs in North Tel-Aviv with his Jewish girlfriend. Binji is not Cobti, and there is a limit to how much autobiographical details one can draw here. But the casting choice cannot be ignored. Binji wants to be what the "Jewish and Democratic" Israel promises its Arab citizens: "forget about your national identity, and just be a human being, a citizen." In a key scene, Binji decides to move in with his girilfriend. He describes the decision in universalist terms, as a matter of age: there comes a moment when a young man leaves his father's house and moves in with his girlfriend. Except there is no such universal moment. Moving in with girlfriend/boyfriend is a Jewish (or at most a Western) rite of passage in Israel, not a universal one. His mates understand that and accuse Binji of choosing to become a Jew. Binji doesn't get it. It is therefore hardly incidental that Binji, the one who passes as a Jew, the one who reminds the police about his civil rights, is the one who cannot handle the police abuse. He is the only one in the film who dies without being killed. He dies from an overdose of coke, metaphorically in a stupefied delirium of universal citizenship.

When Copti says he doesn't represent Israel at the Oscars, he is not merely making a personal statement; he is also explaining the meaning of his film. There is no position from which a Palestinian can speak as a "universal," non-national Israeli citizen. Ajami is also an apolitical meditation about the impossibility of being the kind of apolitical Palestinian that Israel demands its Palestinian citizens to be. Yet Cobti tries. The film is invested deeply in universality. It speaks a universal filmic language, and expresses a universalist sensibility to human pain, love and hopelessness. It could have been shot in Brazil with minimal alterations. It addresses the Israeli audience, not with a challenge of identity and racism, but with a message of common humanity, a hand extended in recognition, but also in hopeless knowledge that it cannot be recognized, because it comes from a place that doesn't exist, the place of the nationally unidentified "Israeli citizen". Palestinian critics hated the film. In contrast, the film was praised most by those, like Burston Bradley, who failed to understand that the hopelessness of the film is Israel's hopelessness. That is also the film's failure. If the film were a lesson in geometry, it would be a proof by reductio ad absurdum. Let's assume there is an Israeli civil society. Let there be a film about that society that criticizes Israel from that purely civic perspective. It can't be done. Israeli society does not exist. Q.E.D.

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